Blogging, Writing

Insert Sarcasm Here — Miscommunication in the Digital Age


Sarcasm is a tricky beast. Some find it hilarious, while others deem it humiliating. When done well, it’s often indecipherable — a straight-faced delivery can majorly mess with literal-minded folks that just “don’t get it.”

And this is when you’re standing right next to each other.

On the phone, you can sometimes catch it: A brief pause. A mumbled phrase. A rising inflection. Or even an, “I was joking, you idiot!” can clue you in.

But with the age of digital communication taking over, sarcasm can wreak havoc on a comment stream, or raise questions on the authenticity of an email. Relationships may falter from a friendly, “I hate you.”

This is nothing new. Before the invention of the telephone, I’m sure our pioneers ran into similar issues. Imagine a bearded and be-piped colonist chuckling to himself as he wrote a letter to his loved-ones across the pond:

Life in the new world is grand. I quite enjoy waking up with vermin in my bed. They keep my feet warm.

Now, picture the shock on the face of his properly night-capped mum, or the wonder in the eyes of his betrothed as she determines if “vermin” is really code for “hussy.” And then think of the weeks (the months!) that might go by until another letter could be sent to ease their minds and make it right. Pure torture. All because of a lonely man’s tryst with sarcasm.

Today, we’re able to fix the damage more quickly —  we of the winky faces 😉 and (apologetic) parentheses; we purveyors of ironic italics — of just-kidding em dashes. We have qualifiers in our back pockets, and scare quotes at the ready.

Sometimes, though, I think it’s best to abide by that lovely proverb that always reminds me of Caroline Ingalls (“Ma”) from the Little House on the Prairie series. “Least said, soonest mended,” she might say when her feisty daughter, Laura, was about to insert her blackened boot down her own throat. It was meant as a warning; “Shut your yap, the damage is done.”  

And Laura would nod, and then…eventually got thrown into juvie. Wait, maybe that was Anne of Green Gables? In any case, it’s hard to squelch that desire to clarify. To illuminate. To get the last word in, folks. Hard stuff, indeed.

Still, it’s something to think about. We leave comments that can be misconstrued. Tweets that are far too familiar. Emails that neglect to display the proper emoticon.

And when we write stories (and by “we,” I mean “me”) we need to consider the reader, and whether they’ll see those carefully placed one-liners as memorable gems, or middle-fingers in the face of good taste.

In those cases, maybe it’s better to consider sticking with sarcasm’s brown-nosing cousin — wit. 


Find me on Twitter @amandahoving

38 thoughts on “Insert Sarcasm Here — Miscommunication in the Digital Age”

  1. You hit the nail on the head. It’s why texting and email with my daughter drives me nuts. She writes very briefly and comments come off as terse and brittle, though she probably doesn’t really mean it that way. But how do I know? I had a half hour email session with her last night and I finally gave up and called her and tried to explain what I was saying, which she still didn’t believe. Oh well.


    1. Thank you! I know — miscommunication with texting happens all the time. I’ll ask my daughter, “What’s wrong?” just because her texts are short and to the point. Digital conversations just aren’t the same.


  2. Great post. Good subject. The line between sarcasm and wit can be a thin one.

    In fact, humor of any kind in writing can fall flat, because tone and facial expressions aren’t there to give clues when you intend to be funny. Also, humor is terribly subjective and tied to culture. Because sarcastic humor can easily inflict pain when it’s misunderstood, it’s good to proceed with caution.


    1. Thanks so much for stopping by Anne. I agree with your comments — funny to one is almost never funny to all. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with my current WIP. I know I can’t please everyone, but I have to ask myself, “Is this only funny to me?”


  3. Interesting post, Amanda. I use a fair amount of sarcasm in my posts…I think for the most part that my readers find them funny. I often wait until I feel like I “know” a person fairly well before I leave a “teasing” comment on their blog (a good example is our friend, Mr. Morgan, who I chastised for driving and blogging at the same time!).

    In just over a year of posting (more than 200 posts), I have only had two comments where I have offended someone, and it was certainly not intentional…



    1. Thanks, Wendy! I think you know that I imbibe in a good amount of sarcasm myself. But like Anne said above, there’s a fine line. I would say that your humor is of the witty sort. Sarcasm has a lot of synonyms, and none of them are all that flattering.

      (I am now prying my fingers away from the keyboard in an effort to NOT leave an emoticon…oh the pain, the pain.)


  4. Good point. Humour is tough to do well when writing, but at least if it falls flat, it’s just not funny. Sarcasm, misunderstood, can hurt. I have definitely added a second comment a few times to soften the first, in case it’s misunderstood.

    Who knew brown-nosing would turn out to be a positive?!


    1. HA, no second-guessing! Let me be clear that I’m of fan of sarcasm when used at the right time, with the right people, in the right context. In fact, you might say that my husband and I began our relationship on our mutual affection for sarcasm (Please note, however, that we met when we were 14.) And it’s still very much present at our house. Maybe far too present. The other day, I heard my 7 year old deadpan, “Well, that was fun,” after having had to clean up the basement. Yeah, we’re proud.


  5. Such a fine line…

    My husband was recently called out at work for using the smiley face too often in e-mails as a way to soften what could be interpreted as harsh words. Now he just adds: (insert smiley face here)



  6. Great post, Amanda. (Wait — why does that suddenly sound sarcastic? It really IS a great post…) As someone who is frequently silly, I run into this problem quite a bit. Sarcasm by definition has ill-intent, and that’s easy to steer clear of. But plenty of ironic statements that one hopes are witty come over like lead balloons online, don’t they?


    1. Thank you, Kristen! I believe you. (I think.)

      Yes, I’ve seen the lead balloons fall, and I’ve also thrown a few myself. A fine line, yes. Sometimes humor takes some serious forethought.

      (BTW, I’ve challenged myself to answer all of these comments without smiley faces — it hurts.)


  7. I can relate bigtime. I tend to drip with sarcasm, a lifelong battle. Many times I pull the plug on a hilarious comment because I fear the misinterpretations of the fragile. I love the thought about letter writing though! So true how that would’ve happened back in the day. You are, and I say this with zero sarcasm, super smart. For reals.


    1. Ah, thanks, Clay. It appears my plan to fool the world has been successful.

      And, if you think you are the king of dripping sarcasm, it’s in a completely intelligent and authentically funny way. Fragile, be warned!


  8. I’m always amazed at how I think everyone knows I”m kidding, then I’ll be hit with a DM that says, “I”M SO SORRY! I DIDN”T MEAN TO HURT YOUR FEELINGS!”

    Kidding, people, kidding.



  9. Sarcastic humor seems to be everywhere – in movies, tv shows, even op-ed pieces! Though in a novel, I find I get tired of a character who is one-note snarky, especially if it’s first person. I’ve put down books because of it. Does anyone else feel this way?


    1. Hi Jackie — I can’t think of a book I’ve put down, but I have switched channels because of it. Sometimes, it works for me, other times (like you’ve said) the unending snarkiness is too much.


  10. Love this! Beautifully written, but more than that, you hit on my biggest gift and my biggest vice: the deliciousness of sarcasm! I’ve got myself in more pickles through email than I care to remember. Now I over indulge in winky faces just to preserve the few friends who’ve stuck with me. I really wish I’d written this post. I hate you. ; )


  11. “I’m of fan of sarcasm when used at the right time, with the right people, in the right context.” Go for it moments. Otherwise, e-mailing, texting, commenting and blogging offer the chance for proofing. Ya never know where the rewrite may take you. Ain’t/Isn’t it fun?
    So now I think I’ll click Submit/Post/Reply.


  12. This is a great post — honestly, sometimes I’ve just given up on Twitter because I can’t possibly figure out how to say something in 140 characters that correctly says what I want it to. And that isn’t even when I’m being anything but straightforward! Sarcasm? Fuggetaboutit! Emails are a little better, but not much. It doesn’t help that I am constantly afraid I’ll hurt someone’s feelings, and then I obsess about it! (Same for comments to blogs–do you have ANY IDEA how long it took me to write this comment?! I started it yesterday! But gave up and came back today–no, seriously!) 😉


    1. Don’t worry about me, Julia — I can take the sarcasm!

      Yeah, I’ve had those same moments where I worry about a messages I’ve left to people who may not understand that I enjoy me some humor. Then I tend to overthink…which doesn’t come across very well either.


  13. This is so brilliant! I’m always leaving smiley faces behind to make sure people know I’m joking. And still I worry that I may have offended after I’ve already hit the send button. Ugh. I may need a few more qualifiers for my back pocket 😉


    1. I’ve been the queen of the smiley face lately, which is why I’m trying NOT to use them in the comments of this post. But sometimes even a smiley face can’t save somone from an outright rude comment. Fortunately, a laughing face will…

      Thank you, Sherrie, and thanks for stopping by~


  14. I hope I haven’t offended you – I can be sarcastic and I rarely leave a comment without an emoticon 🙂


    I’ll think twice before publishing a post or submitting a comment, though!



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